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What Motivates Us To Change?

I struggle with this question day in and day out. Whether I’m trying to motivate myself to get to the gym, read for school, or working to motivate my clients to meet their goals. It’s an interesting and fundamental question. 

ACT postulates that thoughts are just that, thoughts. They are not your experience or “reality.” This is a great concept, because if I could just tell myself that I am having a thought that I don’t want to exercise, but it’s just a thought and not my experience, then maybe I’ll make it to the gym. Unfortunately, for me it’s not that simple. I still don’t make it to the gym as much as I’d like.

I can use CBT and tell myself that I “can” get to the gym, and other thoughts of how good I will look, feel, and think once I exercise. Again, it’s a good idea, but then I use the same thoughts to convince myself that I am tired, hungry, and just don’t want to go.

What has motivated me in the past are emotions. When I feel good I tend to behave in a self affirming way whether that’s exercising, taking care of responsibilities or socializing. In order to feel good, I would have to do the things mentioned. So when I’m not feeling so good, how do I break the cycle so that I can get back on the horse of feeling good.

For me, it’s been looking for the passion in the activity that will break the cycle. If I am trying to get myself to the gym, then I have to find something emotionally appealing about the gym. Not thoughts. There has to be a sensory stimulation about attending the gym. For me, it’s the sauna. I enjoy sitting in the sauna for 20 minutes, but in order to get there I have to exercise first. 

Another example is getting myself to work at night when I am tired. Using technology excites me. I can’t pick up a text book at 1am and start reading it, but I can pick up my ipad, check mail, tweets, and then pull up an article on Pdf expert and start reading it. 

Again, there is no thought in the motivation process, there is emotion. Thinking about what excites you at any particular task and using that to break the cycle of not doing it might be a way to motivate yourself.

Loss

I remember telling myself I didn’t want to get old. At the time old was 30. In my young mind, old represented being different or weird. It meant being unhappy. It meant worrying about bills, arguing with your partner, and sitting around drinking alcohol with friends. At 15, the plan was to do as much as I could in the shortest amount of time. And that included sex. What it didn’t include was thinking about past failures, catastrophizing about the future, or drinking to drown these thoughts.

I saw 30 year old as slow, responsible and ultimately unhappy. 

My brother, approaching 30, had a wife, child, and business. He did so much less than I did. So I thought. When he killed himself, I understood. What was there to live for after 30? 40? 50? 60? 

As I write these words, I ask myself what did I value at 15 that I no longer value? I remember believing that my friends were the most important thing to me. Not simply having friends, but what I did with them. I enjoyed going to Queen concerts, discotheques, and staying up all night contemplating the importance of one track over the other. 

I also remember enjoying sitting with my family watching Dynasty and the Love Boat, exercising at the church gym, and eating whatever I wanted to.

Growing old to me meant loss. Loss of excitement, energy, ambition, and possibilities. How many older adults believe their lives are lacking excitement, energy, ambition and most importantly, possibilities?

Exercise: Take a minute to imagine yourself as a 5 year old, 10, 15, 20, and 30 year old. Try to connect with one aspect of the person that was and is still the same. Can you see the self as a 5, 10, 15, 20 and 30 year old? Is there a difference in that self or is the form or body the only thing that has changed?

The same thing that we found exciting, energetic, and possible at 15 is the same thing that can drive our behavior today. They are called values. If you valued spending time with friends and talking about nonsense, watching mindless TV with your family or exercising, then what stops you from experiencing those activities today?

Values or things that make us feel fulfilled are activities that we thought were important throughout our lives. At some point, we may have stopped experiencing those things and lost purpose. Purpose isn’t this philosophical idea that you need to explore for years with a therapist. It’s a state in which you feel when you are fulfilled and living a vital life. 

Loss is what we feel when we are not living our lives the way we always wanted to live it. And, ultimately fear is the emotion that we feel not being able to live that life and catastrophizing what it means to live a life without purpose. The interesting thing is as we look back, we can notice things that were always important to us and that we can continue to do regardless of our physical or mental state. As for me, I can continue to attend music venues with friends, watch mindless TV with my family, and find a way to do whatever exercise that I can. 

If you want to feel vital and fulfilled, then make a list of the things you value doing. Do you want to be the kind of person that is fun, exciting, compassionate, loving, etc. If so then do it. Your mind with tell you why you should not do it. Your emotions will urge you not to do it. But, be compassionate to your mind and your emotions and hold what they say lightly. Hold it as if you were holding a baby. Then, get out and do the things you want to be about.

Exercise: Take a minute to fantasize about your burial. Who will be there? Now, imagine your best friend or closest family member eulogizing you. What would you like them to be saying? Now, go out and live your life consistent with this thought, so that when that day comes, your best friend or closest family member will say just that. I hope you enjoyed this series. If you found it helpful and think that ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy may be helpful for you, then download the 7 steps to finding the right therapist and start working on your values.

Am I Getting Old?

I remember sitting on my fathers hospital bed and telling him that he would not recover from this illness. He was surprised, shocked, and ultimately denied what I was saying. I often notice the same reaction from people who become aware of how old they are and what that means in this society. 

Just as in my fathers example, there is usually and event that triggers the emotions surprise and shock. It could be getting an application to AARP in the mail, as it was for me, or a medicare application, someone calling from the bank on eligibility to pension benefits, or any number of events. Some can be quit pleasant as someone offering a seat in the subway or politely addressing you as Mister or Maam.

What often follows is a hyper awareness of age. It is similar to noticing the same make, model, and color of a car that you recently purchased. Hyper awareness is rarely beneficial and in this case people start to notice their limitations when it comes to activities, exercise, job prospects, and socializing.  They will also notice body pains, reactions to different foods, allergies, and appearance. 

Hyper awareness of these limitations along with what other people tell us, TV shows, advertisements, and ultimately what we tell ourselves come together to a realization that we in fact are old. What often follows is anger, sadness, depression and anxiety and panic about impending death.

Common thoughts that triggers the anger are: “this should not be happening to me.” “I wasted my life” (and I shouldn’t have), “I haven’t achieved anything in this life” (and I should have), “there is so much I wanted to accomplish” (that I should have accomplished). This anger at the self often spills into frustrations and irritations at others. Then, we get labeled, “old grouch,” people withdraw and sadness and depression set in. Common thoughts are of worthlessness and loss of purpose. Finally, anxiety and hyper awareness over impending death takes up most of our daily attention.

What I find interesting is that just one week prior to this event that triggered the surprise and shock, we did not feel sad, depressed or anxious and panic. We went along with our lives focusing on our day to day activities, relationships, and goals.

*** This article is part 1 of a 3 part series where I go over acceptance based strategies for dealing with agism. ***

Lets first take a look at the labels that we use to define our identity and how helpful this is.

As I mentioned above, other people in this society think up what old is and should be. Then, they feel compelled to tell us about their thought. “Oh, you don’t look 50.” “You are too old to be dating.” “Have you thought of retiring?” “Aren’t you too old to be going back to school?” When I hear these thoughts, I have 2 choices; internalize the thought and identify with the label old, or see it as something that was just generated by my friends mind. I ask myself, which choice would work best for me right now?

Minds evolved to generate random thoughts, evaluations and judgements. These thoughts can be consistent with reality or not. Either way they are still just thoughts generated by the mind, your friends mind, your mind, or an advertisers mind. 

Exercise: Take a minute to remember the last time you were sure of something and it turned out to be wrong. Notice how the mind generated a thought that was inconsistant with reality, and how much you “bought” into the thought.

Exercise: Sit comfortably in a chair, take 2 deep breaths, close your eyes and imagine you sitting in the chair. Allow your imagination to notice the room you are in, the flooring, art on the walls and anything that may be happening in the space. 

Now, open your eyes and take a minute to notice the room, flooring, art and anything else happening in the space.

Are they different? If you are like many, you will notice that your imagination or “thought” in this exercise was limiting. It was limiting because it all occurred in your mind. When you opened your eyes and became aware of your reality, you notice the richness of life outside of your mind, and the experience of sitting in a chair in this room.

These exercises are designed so that you can  become aware of the separateness between what your mind generates and your reality or experience. By separating the two, you can notice that others and yourself generate random thoughts about age that can be limiting. 

Your thoughts are not you or your experience, they are just thoughts. You don’t have to identify with these thoughts and labels and make them your reality. 

*** Practice the exercises above until my next article on aging. ***

Retirement and Pain. Agism and society.

Last night, while watching the Tony award show, I noticed some of the advertisements focused on older adults; retirement and pharmaceutical pain management. The former used visuals to scare the viewer into realizing that they will live longer than 65 and had better be saving for retirement, and the latter also used visuals to show how limiting life is without the use of their medicine. 

I often hear concerns from clients, family and friends of the lack of available or disposable money. These people can have a net worth anywhere from $0 to 3 million dollars. The amount of money that people have doesn’t seem to be the common denominator. There are people with lots of money that obsess about it and there are those with none that don’t, and more commonly, vise versa. I argue the common denominator to be their relationship with money. 

Similarly, I hear concerns from clients, family and friends on the pain and suffering that they endure because of physical, mental, or environmental influences. Again, there are people that suffer great pain and do not concern themselves with it, while others that suffer less pain, and allow it (pain) to take up most of their daily attention. The common denominator doesn’t seem to be the pain itself, but the relationship the person has to the pain.

In this society, we are socialized to escape or avoid pain. By saving money and preparing for retirement, we can minimize anxiety. Only problem is that this works in the short-term. Then, the thoughts of not having enough creep in and obsessing about money returns. Similarly, we are socialized to take a drug to avoid or minimize suffering pain. Again, this works in the short-term, but in the longer term, we build tolerance.  

*** This article is part 2 of a 3 part series where I go over acceptance based strategies for dealing with agism. ***

As mentioned in the previous article, when we allow our  thoughts and emotions to dictate our behavior (escape or avoid), then we limit possibilities. A thought about money today will not increase its amount, but it may limit what we do with the day. If I use it obsessing about how much I don’t have, then I have reduced my day to private events. However, I can accept that I don’t have enough, and accept that I will be anxious about not having enough, and choose to enjoy the day regardless. Similarly, I can accept that I have pain, and that the pain may limit some of my activity, and just as others have done, I can choose to do something that I want to do regardless of the pain.

Not having enough money is limiting and suffering extreme pain is also limiting. They are also relative. Working toward earning and saving is a value, as is taking pain medication to be able to enjoy an activity. The question is are these 2 things (saving, pain medication) working for you today?

Exercise: Sit comfortably in a chair, close your eyes and take a few deep grounding breaths. Focus on your breath for a few minutes. Then, ask yourself, “what problem do I have right now?”

If you are like many, you may realize that in this moment you have NO problem. The concerns about money may be about the future. Pain is something that may be happening now, but doesn’t have to be a problem now. By making it a problem, the focus becomes about fixing the problem in the future, not now.

For many of us, there is NO problem in this moment as we sit here.

Bringing ourselves back into the present moment and accepting our discomfort about money or pain allows us to live our lives. Focusing on the lack of money and the amount of pain we suffer limits our possibilities for enjoyment. 

Exercise: Ask yourself, “what kind of person do I want to be in relation to money and pain.“ “Do I want to be someone who can enjoy life (engage in outdoor activities) regardless of the amount of money or pain that I suffer?”

Then, when you notice yourself thinking of money or pain, bring yourself back to the present moment and DO something that is consistent with the type of person you want to be. 

For example if you want to be the type of person that enjoys outdoor activities, when you find yourself obsessing about money, take yourself outside and engage in an outdoor activity. If you want to be the kind of person that tolerates pain, then the next time you suffer pain, refocus on the present moment and engage in an outdoor activity. 

*** Practice this exercise until my next article post. ***